[An edited version of this post also appears on the PBS website NextAvenue.]
Before Champa and I joined the Peace Corps at the age of 63, people asked us how we’d feel to be surrounded by volunteers younger than our two sons.
Well, many of our fellow volunteers are indeed in their 20s, and most of them are smart, enthusiastic and fun to be around. Yet Champa and I are hardly outliers. Fourteen of the 58 people in our training group — nearly one in four — are 50 or older.
Worldwide, Americans over age 50 comprise about 7 percent of the nearly 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers now serving in 63 countries around the world. With its better medical facilities and programs in fields such as business development that attract people with lots of real-world experience, Moldova attracts higher numbers.
Whatever their reasons for choosing Moldova, the older volunteers here are impressive. They’ve worked as professors, attorneys, IT managers, nonprofit leaders, teachers, city administrators and management consultants. They come from across the country, including two other older volunteers from North Carolina. They are single, widowed, divorced or, as with us and one other older couple, married and serving together. Like the volunteers here generally, they are also diverse, reflecting the country we represent.
We differ from our younger counterparts in some ways. Learning a new language may be tougher for us, although many of us are doing fine in our Romanian classes. We may run slower in a group soccer game, if we participate at all. When several younger friends went to get tattoos recently, they knew better than to invite me along. They also may party harder and make surprising cultural references. When I was in the Peace Corps office the other day, a Carole King song started playing and the young woman next to me said, “Hey, it’s that song from the Gilmore Girls!”
On the other hand, they’re usually polite when we make our own references to people and events from before they were born, so it tends to even out.
In Moldova and other Peace Corps countries, there are advantages to being an older volunteer. Many of these countries show great respect towards older people. Similarly, having children and grandchildren has provided Champa and me with an instant bond with older members of our new communities. Our experience enhances our credibility in our workplaces as well; my future colleagues have already checked me out online. Older volunteers can share their hobbies, too, as Champa hopes to do with art and gardening.
Peace Corps has a special website for older Americans interested in becoming volunteers. The site reviews the application process, which is competitive and includes an extensive medical clearance process.
One of my reasons for writing this blog, and this post in particular, is to encourage older readers to consider the Peace Corps or some other new challenge for themselves. It’s not as strange or exotic as they might think and shouldn’t just be dismissed with “Oh, I could never do that at my age.”
Obviously, many people have family obligations, medical problems and other constraints that make Peace Corps unrealistic. Nonetheless, it’s a proven program through which more than 220,000 Americans of all ages have served their country and the world — and had a great adventure in the process.
Personally, I’m already wondering what it will be like in two years to be back in America and surrounded by friends who are mostly older than the ones I’ve made here.